The Nazca

Learning Objective

  • Explain the culture, religion, agriculture, and decline of the Nazca civilization

Key Points

  • Early Nazca society was made up of local chiefdoms and regional centers of power centered around the ritual site of Cahuachi.
  • The Nazca are known for their Nazca Lines—geometric shapes, lines, and animal figures carved into the desert floor.
  • Like the Moche, the Nazca decline was likely due to environmental changes.


Nazca Lines

A series of geometric shapes, miles of lines, and large drawings of animal figures created by the Nazca culture.


Spiritual practitioners that reach altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world for healing and divination purposes.


This primitive surgery removed a piece of bone from the skull, while the person was still alive, to allow drainage after a head injury.

The Nazca (or Nasca) lived near the arid southern coast of Peru from 100 BCE to 800 CE. Early Nazca society was made up of local chiefdoms and regional centers of power centered around Cahuachi, a non-urban ceremonial site of earthwork mounds and plazas. These pyramid-like structures and plazas, situated in the lower part of the Nazca Valley, served as important spaces for fertility and agricultural rituals. People from across the Nazca region most likely gathered in Cahuachi during specific times of the year to feast and make offerings.

The Nazca developed underground aqueducts, named puquios, to sustain cities and agriculture in this arid climate. Many of them still function today. They also created complex textiles and ceramics reflecting their agricultural and sacrificial traditions.

Society and Religion

Likely related to the arid and extreme nature of the environment, Nazca religious beliefs were based upon agriculture and fertility. Much of Nazca art depicts powerful nature gods, such as the mythical killer whale, the harvesters, the mythical spotted cat, the hummingbird, and the serpentine entity. As in the contemporary Moche culture based in northwest Peru, shamans apparently used hallucinogenic drugs, such as extractions from the San Pedro cactus, to induce visions during ceremonies.


Killer whale (Orca). Powerful nature gods were an essential element of the Nazca religious culture, which centered around agriculture.

Nazca Lines

The geoglyphs of Nazca, or “Nazca Lines,” are a series of geometric shapes, extended lines that run for miles, and large drawings of animal figures (some as large as a football field) constructed on the desert floor in the Nazca region. A large number of people over an extended period of time could have constructed the lines.

Researchers have demonstrated techniques to explore how this was done. By extending a rope between two posts and removing the red pebbles on the desert surface along the rope, the lines could have been constructed. The contrast of the red desert pebbles and the lighter earth beneath would make the lines visible from a high altitude. Due to the simplistic construction of the geoglyphs, regular amounts of rainfall would have easily eroded the drawings, but the dry desert environment has preserved the lines for hundreds of years. Several theories have been posited as to why the Nazca Lines exist, but the true meaning of the geoglyphs remains a mystery.


Nazca Lines. These Nazca lines, called The Hummingbird, are representative of the type of structures that remain.

Agriculture and Diet

Nazca subsistence was based largely on agriculture. Iconography on ceramics and excavated remains indicate that the Nazca people had a varied diet, including:

  • Maize
  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Beans
  • Manioc (also known as Yuca)
  • Achira
  • Small amounts of fish
  • Peanuts

They also grew several non-food crops, such as cotton for textiles, coca, San Pedro cactus, and gourds. The latter were decorated to illustrate activities in daily life. The presence of coca is evident in pottery and artwork. The leaves of this plant were chewed and worked as a stimulant that suppressed hunger, pain, thirst, and fatigue. The hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus also appears on several polychrome pots and bowls showcasing its ceremonial significance.

In terms of animal resources, the Nazca made sacrifices of llamas and guinea pigs at Cahuachi. Llamas were also commonly exploited as pack animals, for their wool, and as a source of meat.


San Pedro cactus. This plant, Echinopsis pachanoi, has hallucinogenic properties, which shamans of the Nazca culture utilized in ceremonies.

Trephination and Cranial Manipulation

Trephination was a primitive skull surgery used by the Nazca that relieved pressure on the brain from battle wounds or for ritual purposes. It entails the removal of one or more sections of bone from the skull, while the person is still alive. Evidence of trephination has been seen through the analysis of excavated skulls. Some of the skulls show signs of healing, evidence that some individuals who underwent the procedure survived.

Elongated skulls, as a result of skull manipulation, were also seen in the excavations from Cahuachi. This effect was achieved by binding a cushion to an infant’s forehead and a board to the back of the head. Archaeologists can only speculate as to why this was done to some of the skulls. Several theories suggest skull manipulation created an ethnic identity, formed the individual into a social being, or may have illustrated social status.

Decline of the Nazca

Like the Moche, who lived along the arid northern coast of Peru during the same time period, it is thought that the Nazca may have been forced into decline by environmental changes. This is thought to have occurred when an El Niño triggered widespread and destructive flooding, leaving the civilization unstable by 750 CE. Evidence also suggests that the Nazca people may have exacerbated the effects of these floods by gradually cutting down Prosopis pallida trees to make room for maize and cotton agriculture. These trees play an extremely important role as an ecological keystone of this landscape, in particular preventing river and wind erosion. Gradual removal of trees would have exposed the landscape to the effects of climate perturbations such as El Niño, leading to erosion and leaving irrigation systems high and dry.